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Roman Empire and Roman Law: The Lessons of Human History

March 6th, 2017

roman empireThe Roman Empire – a state that existed for more than a millennium and had the greatest influence on history, culture, language and laws of Europe. A state that had started as a kingdom and ended up as two empires. Such an enormous country was sure to have a well-balanced system of rules, rights and laws to govern all its provinces, that rarely shared similar customs and rites.

The History of Roman law dates back to the times when Rome was just a Mediterranean kingdom. Latini – the natives, had own rules and customs of governing, having property and solving disputes. It was not a system, though, rather a number of unwritten laws that often contradicted each other. According to a legend, citizens of Rome decided to write down the laws to avoid contradictions. After eight years of struggle, the plebeian class convinced the patricians to send delegates to Greek cities to copy their law system. No matter if it was a reality or not, the Roman law had changed significantly over time.

Roman law as many other ancient legal systems was based on the principle of personality, it means that the law of the state could be applied only to citizens of a state (ius civile). Foreigners had rights in the Roman state only in case of mutual treaties that granted protection, otherwise a foreigner was considered as property and any Roman citizen that could seize him or her and proclaim the rights of possession. Though it was in the interests of the state to protect the foreigners, as, in most cases, they were traders, Ius gentium was created – a legal system that was applied when one of the subjects was non-citizen.

The oldest written legal text of the Roman state was “the Twelve Tablets” dating from 5th century CE. Later, with the adoption of the principle of personality, Ius civile was developed – a very ceremonial and symbolic legislative system that was rather representation of old rites and ways of solving disputes. The result of numerous expansion and growing trade interests of the Roman state was Ius gentium. Due to its flexibility it became very popular among magistrates.

Romans used to divide their laws into written and unwritten (ius scriptum, ius non scriptum). Unwritten law represented customs, while written law was based literally on any written source. Written law could be performed in five ways:

Leges (singular lex, the earliest one – the Twelve Tablets) – concerned matters of family law, torts, offences and other legal procedures.

Edicta – were usually issued by praetors (one praetor office concerned citizens, another non-citizens). As in later republic edicta became a type of reform – leges ceased to be the main source of private law.

Senatus consulta – were not actually a legal document, rather an advice to magistrates, which could be then accepted. In the time of early empire Roman senate ceased to have real power and their resolutions just supported the proposals of the emperor. Later on, only emperor’s proposals had real legislative power.

Constitutiones principum – were in fact the emperor’s legislative expressions.

Responsa prudentium – this type of written law represented answers of learned lawyers. Those legal advisers were not professionals and had no legislative power, they were just educated men giving free legal pieces of advice. Although during the reign of Augustus some of them were given power to advice with the emperor’s authority.

References:

  1. Anderson, Craig. Roman Law. 1st ed. Dundee: Dundee University Press, 2009
  2. Nicholas, Barry. An Introduction To Roman Law. 1st ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962
  3. Jolowicz, H. F and Barry Nicholas. Historical Introduction To The Study Of
  4. Roman Law. 1st ed. Cambridge [England]: University Press, 1972
  5. Tellegen-Couperus, O. E. A Short History Of Roman Law. 1st ed. London: Routledge, 1993
  6. Buckland, W. W, Arnold Duncan McNair McNair, and F. H Lawson. Roman Law & Common Law. 1st ed. Cambridge [England]: University Press, 1952
  7. Vinogradoff, Paul. Roman Law In Medieval Europe. 1st ed. Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1968
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